So it appears the rot is spreading: the University of East London, an educational institution in the London borough of Newham that started life in 1898 as West Ham Technical Institute and was awarded university status in 1992, is currently soliciting opinions from technology companies about its new postgraduate Master of Arts course in Social Media.
An email, passed to The Kernel by one east London technology start-up, says the programme will “give emphasis to social media and roles in integrated marketing communications and in cultural and community development. The course will enable students to produce group and individual social media projects to develop, hone and test their skills and understanding.
“We will teach them techniques and principles in web analytics and social media monitoring as well as some of the basic computing skills needed to create and manage effective and innovative social media environments.”
UEL, based in Docklands, hosts over 3,000 students studying for qualifications in “computer games design, new media, advertising, fashion, journalism and performing arts”. Now, it appears, UEL is to add the greatest Mickey Mouse course of them all to its roster, enabling PR executives to append “MA” to their business cards.
We asked the author of this email, Iain MacRury, Associate Dean of Arts and Digital Industries at UEL, why his university is insisting on dignifying what is essentially a vocational diploma with the title Master of Arts. He did not reply.
Under Freedom of Information laws, The Kernel asked two other universities already offering MA Social Media courses, Salford and Birmingham City, for copies of the correspondence and the committee meeting minutes that led to the validation of these courses as appropriate for postgraduate study, and for copies of teaching materials they use.
Birmingham City University was readily forthcoming. It took a little more goading to persuade the University of Salford to release its own paperwork, with full documentation provided only after The Kernel demanded an internal university review. (Not that they have anything to hide, you understand.)
The University of Salford approved its course in 2009. Along with its MA in Social Work, MA Construction Management, MA Fiction Film Production, MA Children’s Digital Media Production, MSc Corporate Real Estate and Facilities Management, and something called an MA in “Digital Performance”, the MA in Social Media is offered as either a full- or part-time qualification, costing £7,500.
Salford describes the course in its internal documents as a full-time programme “which concerned itself with those forms of media practice which informed the daily lives of people and communities, such as social networking sites, video diaries and blogs. The programme would emphasise the profoundly integrated nature of these developments and seek to work with individuals and communities to help them develop the skills that would in turn enable them to make valuable contributions to the community.”
Minutes from its committee meetings make clear candidates for Salford’s MA in Social Media will not have to meet the conventional postgraduate requirement of an undergraduate degree in order to matriculate. “While some entrants on the programme were expected to come from the ‘traditional’ A-Levels plus degree background, it was anticipated that it would also attract large numbers of non-standard entrants, such as community leaders,” record the minutes.
Salford’s committee meeting minutes report that although “any shortfall in student recruitment would have serious consequences… programme representatives confirmed that the School was totally committed to the development of the proposal and was willing to absorb any initial shortfall”.
This was the case despite the reservations of Salford University’s final approval committee that the programme “appeared to be overwhelmingly practice-based with far less on theory and analysis than might normally be expected on an M Level programme” [our italics].
It also expressed concern that “the aims of some of the modules, for example Creative Networking, did not appear to be sufficiently rigorous for an M Level programme”.
Such fears from final approval committees appear to be well founded. Course materials for the MA at Birmingham City reveal just how spare the academic content of these programmes of study can be: Birmingham City’s course handbook, issued to new students, describes the course as “designed for creative social entrepreneurs, people who want to make a change to themselves and communities, deploying media for social good. Students will leave this course equipped to work in a variety of institutions engaging with social media.
“This includes the traditional broadcasters who are gradually entering the field as well as new community and third sector organisations who need social media to work for them and their clients.”
This raises the question: is Birmingham City’s MA Social Media course, which costs £6,500, and is, like Salford’s and UEL’s, subsidised by the taxpayer, little more than a year-long holiday for charity and public relations executives whose bosses can be fooled into shelling out for the fees?
Martin Hall, vice chancellor of the University of Salford, told The Kernel: “This is a nine months coursework programme with a comparatively small dissertation component, so I would not usually expect original academic research to be the result. We are not Oxford, or Nottingham, or Exeter, nor aspire to be. We look to the needs of different sorts of students, and try hard to be as good at it as we can.
“As our prospectus indicates, this course is directed at public relations executives and others in professions that are finding that social media are changing the ways in which they need to work.”
So the answer to the Kernel’s question appears to be an unequivocal yes.